Travel 2019 – Alsace and Baden, Day 11, Mulhouse

Monday, 23nd September 2019 – Mulhouse

Monday was mostly all about cars, so if they don’t interest you, you may want to look away now! When I was running the day before I got a good look at some of the neighbourhood, and while I was cooling down afterwards I took a few photos of the immediate surroundings including an interesting housing estate which may be one of those that sprung from an initiative by young manufacturers in the city to build good quality housing for the working class at a time when the population was expanding rapidly to provide workers for the next factories, a project that began in the early 1850s. The architect Émile Muller (1823-89) studied English models among others and produced three basic designs, one of them a cluster house, similar to those at Darley Abbey and Belper in the Derwent Valley in England. Communal facilities included a market, baths, laundries, kindergartens and a library. These certainly looked as if they would fit the description.


A shame that nowhere near as much care seemed to have gone into the hideous concrete church nearby. It’s an eyesore, not helped by the amount of anti-vandal fencing and barbed wire that also surrounded it. It hasn’t worn well.


After breakfast we caught the tram into town again, heading for the Cité de l’Automobile, which houses the Schlumpf Collection. A single change of tram at the Porte Jeune and three stops later we were there. The Collection describes itself as the leading car museum in the world and is almost certainly the largest with cars from the very beginnings of the industry all the way through to the most modern. It was born out of an obsession shared by two brothers, Fritz and Hans Schlumpf who owned a textile business in the area and in effect seem to have pretty much bankrupted that business in pursuit of their shared passion for cars in general, Bugattis in particular.


Fritz bought a Bugatti Type 35B grand prix car just before WWII started, and a second car, a Type 57 shortly afterwards and that seems to have been the start of their problems, especially as Fritz started racing the cars as well. In 1957 a workers’ delegation asked their mother Jeanne, to whom the museum is dedicated, to make him stop to safeguard the woollen mills they owned and operated and thus the workers’ jobs.


He may have stopped racing, but instead he started collecting cars, setting up a workshop in what was then a woollen mill in Mulhouse, bought in 1957 for the purpose of restoring and storing his cars. They seem to have known no restraint when it came to buying cars: in 1960 they picked up 10 Bugattis, 3 Rolls Royces and 2 Hispano-Suizas, and added another 50 of them in 1962, then a year later another 14, and so they continued, neglecting their business, diverting men and materials from it to working on the cars, and secretly squirreling away millions of Francs worth of machinery. Quite why they did it is something of a mystery, because in the main they didn’t drive the cars and they wouldn’t let anyone else see them though they did begin to develop the mill as a potential museum.


They set up walkways, laid down gravel for the cars to stand on, and even commissioned 800 lamps specially for the building. They also bought the Hotel du Parc in the town to put up visitors. Industrial disputes in the 1960s and 1970s saw the Schlumpfs do a runner to Switzerland, and refuse to deal with their 2,000 or so workers, and in the face of cheap competition from elsewhere they effectively went bankrupt. The French government, having bailed them out once, baulked at doing it a second time, and ordered the seizure of the brothers’ assets, issuing warrants for their arrest on charges of embezzlement. Finally, on March 7th 1977 a group of workers broke into the mill where they found 427 cars, virtually all in showroom condition and another 150 cars in the workshops.


In 1981 the collection, buildings and residual land were sold to the National Automobile Museum Association and the museum opened to the public in 1982. The collection gradually fell into decline and in 1999 the museum had to be renovated. It was given control of the French national automobile collection and reopened in March 2000 as the largest car museum in the world.


The museum is a National Heritage and is still dedicated to the Schlumpf brothers’ mother Jeanne Schlumpf with a large shrine to her at the entrance to the museum. The collection consists of at least 520 vehicles with 400 on display in three sections including motor racing. Many of them are in working order and you can, if you have deep enough pockets, take some of them out for a drive on the adjacent test track or even go for a drive in the country. We picked up our free audio guides which provide detailed information about many of the cars, with around 40-50 of them marked as “not to be missed” in case you are short of time. We weren’t so we proceeded to wander every aisle and peer round every corner, seeking out the interesting, the quirky and the downright gorgeous.


We were in there for the best part of six hours and could have spent even longer on it, having to rush the last part to get done before our legs gave out! I swear there are probably people in there who went in years ago and have never come out again… The space is massive, magnificent and actually has a tourist train that will take you round (yes, it really is that big!). We started with a coffee in the cafe as we tried to get our bearings and figure out where to start having already seen the display of bonnet ornaments in the hallway, some of which were more elegant than others! Apparently you used to be able to attach any ornament you wanted, but then Rolls Royce became concerned at the vulgarity of the ornaments some of their customer chose, and came up with their own, the Spirit of Ecstasy.


What did we learn? Well the main conclusion we seemed to come to was that Mercedes have never knowingly made a small car apart from purely by accident when they produced what now looks like the prototype VW Beetle. Instead everything else of theirs was enormous, and Ferdinand Porsche, for it was he who designed this unusual looking Merc, went off and used the blueprint to design and build the Beetle instead.


As we went round the halls it was clear that a lot of the cars were on the incontinent side, even on the road car side; the racing cars even more so as we found out later.


Bugattis are beautiful (yes, I know, we already knew that) though the family had a very troubled history, something retold in the special exhibition that was on, “The Incomparable Bugatti” where there were cars from every generation of Bugatti including the Veyron, and also items designed by members of the family such as some fabulously elegant furniture, including this very oriental throne.


Some of the cars looked a tad second hand, mind you.


There are children’s cars on display en masse, as well as everything from steam powered cars to land speed records rockets. It’s insane, overpacked and fascinating. The children’s cars were great and I wish I’d had one.


Of course if you want really weird there’s this…


And then there’s this!


It also went from the sublime to the ridiculous, with the Bentley Aveyron at one end and this Trabant at the other. Apparently the Schlumpfs did not approve of such prosaic cars being on show in their museum.


Afterwards we wandered into the racing section and spent a lot of time looking longingly at some of the beauties on display there. Again, there were some maintenance issues building up for the workshop to tackle, with drip trays much in evidence, especially under the more venerable vehicles.


There was also an interestingly flat tyre on a Le Mans Porsche…


All in all it was well worth the entrance fee to spend a happy day in the company of some spectacular cars. The only down side was that we were so entranced that lunch time passed us by completely, and although we’d considered going to their restaurant (Fangio’s) it was too late by the time we thought about it, and anyway it was shut for an event. We wandered to the exit via the test track, where I managed to keep my hands firmly in my pockets and away from my wallet, no matter how lovely the cars looked lined up in the sunshine.


After that we browsed the bookshop and resisted buying the official catalogue (€75 seemed a bit much!) and instead added to our steadily growing collection of fridge magnets and picked up the Bugatti exhibition catalogue which was for more reasonably priced. We caught the tram back into town and spent some time searching fruitlessly – and for that matter meatlessly, fishlessly and veglessly – for something to eat. In the end we found a bar/cafe and managed to get a small snack of cold meat and grissini and a glass of wine each.


We picked up some quiche and a piece of greengage cake for our supper, along with a bottle of local gewurztraminer to have as an aperitif before we hopped on the train back to the apartment for the night. Getting off at Illberg, we had a look at the concrete church from another angle, and it didn’t look any better.


The evening was again spent on the balcony with an aperitif despite the fact that the weather seemed to be on the turn.


I then repacked most of the wine boxes ready to repack the car in the morning to move on again, before making supper.


For a fuller version of the Schlumpf’s extraordinary history there are couple of articles here and here that are well worth your time.